Wind farms test efforts to cooperate on Oregon's Steens Mountain

  • Escarpments on the east face of Steens Mountain near the Mann Lake Ranch.

    Emilene Ostlind
  • A simulation of what Echanis' wind turbines will look like on Hoyt Wilson's Mann Lake Ranch.

    Photo courtesy BLM; photo illustration by ONDA

On a hazy autumn day, Fred Otley leans against his flatbed pickup and talks about managing the Otley Brothers Ranch in desolate, windy southeast Oregon. A careful rotation of grazing and fire sustains the open mosaic of juniper and sagebrush on the valley slopes, he explains. He points to the water tank he installed to lure cattle away from the sensitive creek bottom, which is lined by lush willows. "We have 40 years of progressive management for all uses, particularly for biological health," he says. "This ranch will be here for the great-grandkids."

Across the field, some 50 cows flick their ears and swish their tails. Behind them, the shoulders of Steens Mountain, striped with shaggy stands of juniper, hunch into a sky yellowed by smoke from a controlled burn. From here at its north end, the mountain looks like little more than a hill. But beyond, it climbs gently for miles, cresting at a 10,000-foot-high ridge of gray rock and plunging over gnarled cliffs a vertical mile down to the hardpan Alvord Desert to the east. Glacier-carved cirques gnaw at Steens' edges, and the valleys below shelter creeks and ranches like this one, which reaches into the largest of all: Kiger Gorge.

The mountain -- including this ranch and its public-land grazing allotments -- falls inside the 425,550-acre Steens Mountain Cooperative Management and Protection Area, a patchwork of private and Bureau of Land Management holdings set aside by President Bill Clinton a decade ago to protect working ranches as well as one of the most dramatic natural landscapes in Oregon. At the time, many hoped it would end longstanding conflicts between ranchers and environmentalists. The controversy, however, never really settled, and now a new kind of farm is testing efforts to cooperate.

Otley has leased part of his ranch to Columbia Energy Partners for a 104-megawatt wind farm called East Ridge, high on the gorge's rim. "There is a tremendous wind potential up here in a very small footprint if you ignore the viewshed," he says. "We can't manage the land based on subjective ideas." He's not the only one who feels that way: Two other local ranches have contracted with the Vancouver, Wash.-based company to build similar wind farms. Each will have 40 to 60 turbines standing 415 feet tall along high slopes; two of them lie within the protected area's boundaries.

Conservationists as well as some locals dread seeing turbines, flashing lights and power lines on Steens' escarpments. They say that the projects go against the spirit of the Steens Act itself, which states, "Development on public and private lands within the boundaries of the (protected area) which is different from the current character and uses of the lands is inconsistent with the purposes of this Act."

But the act doesn't provide specific protection from the wind projects because of compromises made when it was written, as well as a clear provision protecting ranchers' private-property rights. Meanwhile, critics say that the cooperative management mechanism laid out to help soothe conflicts like this has always been friendlier to locals than to outsiders. As scenic and wildlife values collide with the prospect of unexpected but much-needed economic development, tensions are rising -- not just between ranchers and environmentalists, but among ranchers themselves. "If there is a take-home message from the Steens Act," Wilderness Society consultant Andy Kerr wrote in a 2006 white paper for the Western Governors' Association, it's that "one cannot legislate cooperation."

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